The Sports Marketing Institution Learfield Has Big Plans For College Athletes (Now That They Can Make Money)

Jennifer Davis was named CMO of Learfield, a college sports sponsorship and media company, in March of this year.

In June, the Supreme Court upended the world of college sports and marketing by handing down a decision that guarantees college athletes the right to accept sponsorship and endorsement deals – which formerly would have had them kicked out of the NCAA.

For Learfield, tapping into student athletes is a “whole new world of opportunity,” Davis said.

Brands that are trying to connect with students via stadium signage or social media targeting can suddenly tap star players to post about or use those products themselves.

For schools, the ruling is also a chance to make money. Brands will pay more to see a star NCAA basketball player in their jersey as opposed to in a random t-shirt. The SCOTUS ruling doesn’t allow NCAA athletes to use their school’s intellectual property (IP) without approval.

And there are also other sweeteners, including recruitment. Davis pointed out that potential earnings and marketability of individuals at a school could be a factor for high school stars in choosing between programs.

AdExchanger caught up with Davis to talk about Learfield’s data-driven operation and its plan to bring student athletes into its sponsorship programs.

AdExchanger: To start, what is Learfield’s role in college sports marketing?

JENNIFER DAVIS: On one side, we work with hundreds of schools of different sizes all over the country, and we also work with both national brands – like Unilever, Snickers and Kellogg's – and local brands – like a local insurance agent or car dealerships – to connect them to fans of our partner universities.

We partner directly with the schools to create their official athletic websites, and we can place media on those outlets or social media. In stadiums and hotels, we do experiential marketing.

We have programmatic offerings using first-party fan data. We are a publisher in that sense. We’re also a media company that brings creative and original content to radio affiliates, streaming services, video and media. We basically do everything outside linear broadcasts.

And we can bring these brand messages directly to a fan using school marks and IP as part of the license arrangement.

What exactly do you mean by “first-party data?”

That’s data we see from our direct involvement in managing the school athletic site and social accounts. A big piece is the ticketing transactions. [Editor’s note: Learfield has its own ticketing subsidiary for school athletics and performing arts called Paciolan.]

Is the programmatic offering you mentioned relatively new?

It’s existed for year but, no surprise, has been coming on very strong in the past couple years.

We’re finding that the brand sponsors we work with are doing more there and finding success generally, so they’re using our programmatic extension.

We aren’t a DSP, but there are ways for us to access those exchanges using our data or for a brand to do that with their platform.

What makes our service unique, I think, is the ability to do a holistic and integrated marketing effort for a sponsor so they’re not just getting their message out on game day, but every day.

What is the opportunity now that NCAA athletes can sign marketing and sponsorship deals?

There are a couple types of IP licensing that happens in the sports space.

One is around merchandise. An arm of our company called CLC deals is specifically focused on collegiate licensing, Earlier this year, we announced a program through CLC that allows student athletes to opt in for licensing opportunities in the merchandising space and, for instance, get paid when their name is sold on a jersey or their name, image or likeness is used in a video game or on a trading card.

A big opportunity is the use of IP and promotions in local and national advertising and in channels where people watch or listen to games.

Big schools and universities already have licensing deals for their IP. This is a chance to bring student athletes into those sponsorship opportunities, which is a powerful combination, and one with precedent in pro sports where these brands often also operate.

What do you mean, “precedent in pro sports?”

Pro athletes have long had the right to use their name, image and likeness and to endorse brands. This means there are established practices that allow a sponsor to engage both with a professional athlete and the team they play for and the league.

If you want Russell Wilson as a sponsor in a campaign, you’d prefer him to be wearing a Seahawks jersey rather than in a white t shirt. That requires a conversation with the team, because it’s their IP.

That’s similar to what we're doing here. But previously, schools didn’t have a way for student athletes and brands to be able to use those marks and logos in campaigns.

Are any particular brands or schools first-movers here?

On the brand side, the adoption so far is existing sponsors. They know the value and get more from their existing investments.

In terms of the schools, even at the time of the June announcement we already had Florida State, University of Florida, University of Kansas, Louisville, St. John's University, Syracuse, Utah and Wisconsin. They all wanted right out of the gate to connect sponsors and athletes, and more sign up every week.

Those schools want to protect their IP and are careful on that front, but they also want their student athletes to succeed on and off the field.

It gets back to recruitment and image. If student athletes at Wisconsin can earn money from sponsors and gain recognition for themselves, that’s a compelling factor for a high school athlete choosing between universities.

We’re seeing schools really encourage student athletes to be as successful as possible.

What do sponsors look for in terms of ROI or attribution?

They range widely. Increasingly, some are looking for impressions and conversions. We also see a lot of focus on engagement in their campaigns – like if there’s a call to action in an ad, say, or people entering a sweepstakes. There are measurable things brands are incorporating for that purpose.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have clients that are motivated by being a part of the community. Supporting a target audience’s favorite school creates opportunities for hospitality or loyalty, which is less directly measurable.

We do needs assessments with brands to understand their motivations and what success would look like for them. Some might prioritize building awareness while others might want to encourage product sampling.

Every business is on its own path.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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